Monday, April 8, 2019

Scion Companion - Chapter 6

This is it. This is the post that's going to ruin me. I will never be in the Senate now. Many years from now, my primary opponent is going to dig up this post, reblog it on social media, and that will be the end of my campaign. Seems fitting, really, seeing as how this chapter of the Scion Companion is a monument to human folly.

I should probably sort my concerns from least to most serious. Some of this chapter is incredibly silly and some of it touches on the darkest recesses of the human soul. It would be a mistake to juxtapose those too starkly.

Firstly - the mass combat system doesn't work. It didn't work in Exalted, 2nd Edition, and it is even more out of place here. We already know the outcome of the war. If the characters are going to change it (but, for fuck's sake, why would they - maybe in Scion's reality, the allies lose without divine help) then it's not going to be from physically confronting the bulk of the enemy's troops on the battlefield, it will be by securing some MacGuffin relic or assassinating Loki or something like that.

Next up is the frankly bizarre choice to conflate mascots with gods. I suppose if you're going to put the Norse, the Greek, and the Japanese gods on the Axis side (and more on that later), then the Allies' divine help starts to look a little thin on the ground. Especially since the Celestial Bureaucracy was pretty much a no-show (from what I understand, each chapter of this book was originally published separately, so maybe it was written without the assumption that players would have access to that material). But it feels weird to compare propaganda with well-documented origins like Rosie the Riveter and Uncle Sam to ancient gods like Thor and Apollo.

Maybe I've been reading these myths all wrong. Maybe the old gods really got their start as nothing more dignified than nationalist iconography in service to the fleeting reign of a petty king. And maybe the reason they've endured is nothing more grandiose than generations of storytellers deciding their exploits made for enthralling fiction. And maybe, by that standard, John Henry, the steel-driving man will prove to be as immortal as any of them. Nevertheless, it still feels weird.

This could be what it's like to experience cultural appropriation (you knew it was coming) from the other side. Obviously, the scion writers didn't really appropriate American culture, being Americans themselves (I assume), but given the direction my thoughts are turning, I think it might be a fair simulation.

The thought, "maybe you're so good at gardening because your mom fucked Johnny Appleseed" is funny to me. Because that's a real thing that can literally happen in this alternate setting, it's been flitting through my head intermittently for the last 10 hours. It never fails to get a chuckle.

Then I remember that Johnny Appleseed was a real guy. His real name was John Chapman and he really died in 1845. He was a bit of an eccentric and followed a pretty fringe branch of Christianity, but by all accounts he led a fairly blameless life and would not entirely approve of the implication that he was wandering around the pagan afterlife fathering illegitimate children.

So how should I feel about this? There are some characters from history or fiction where adding a coda "and he continued to fuck for a hundred years after his death" would seem a fitting tribute. And there are some where it would seem like a grave insult.

I guess, if I search my heart, I'm not offended. Johnny Appleseed was not someone who was sacred to me. Just a cute little story I learned in grade school as part of a fun little festival where we put on skits and ate a dozen different treats made from apples. However, his use here feels wrong. Not in the sense of moral wrongness (though if someone had that opinion, I would not think it unreasonable) but in the sense of factual wrongness. The pieces don't fit. Using this character in this way betrays an incomplete understanding.

If you were to add a sort of imperialist-colonialist smugness on top of that, as so often happens when Americans appropriate indigenous cultures, I can see how that could come off as down right unbearable.

Despite all that, the Yankee and Allied pantheons might almost work, if you dial it up all the way to High Pulp, bordering on camp. "Mweh, heh, heh. I am the daughter of Madame Guillotine here to finish the French Revolution by severing your Nazi neck! Don't bother calling for help. My friends Robin Hood Jr and Pauline Bunyan have already taken care of your reinforcements!" But like I said in my previous post - it's a fine line to walk. There's a lot of darkness in WW2 that's easy to trivialize, and even if you manage to keep it both fun and respectful, you still run the risk of whitewashing the Allies.

And here is where I lose all hope of a future political career. I'm going to talk about a subject that could easily veer into Nazi apologism, but I hope to head this off by being explicit up front. The right side won WW2, and while many of my countrymen are overly glib about the excesses of the Allied bombing campaign, it is faintly ridiculous of us, sitting 70 years after the fact, to second-guess the decisions made in what must have seemed at the time to be an apocalyptic conflict. It's impossible for us to know, without repeating the whole thing all over again, what the minimum amount of force to subdue the Axis really was.

However (sigh) it is irresponsible to talk about the Allied powers without acknowledging that they were racist as fuck. Britain was sitting atop a global empire that floated atop the blood of centuries. France's colonial adventures were scarcely less terrible, and in less than a generation French colonial misrule would kill millions in Vietnam. The Soviet Union had, even by this point, devolved from a beacon to the workers of the world into a brutal totalitarian state that pursued only a thinly-veiled mission of Russian imperial domination over the Slavs. And the United States . . .

Well, it is one of the bitterest historical ironies that America fought Hitler with a segregated army.

Every one of the Allied countries had home-grown nationalist movements that bordered on Fascism. It is probably only a historical accident that Nazism first took root in Germany. If you went back in time and cured Hitler's mom's cancer and then later pulled some strings to get him into art school, it is entirely possible that in this alternate timeline the Business Plot succeeds or the British fascists become the leaders of the movement, rather than the followers. Or that WW2 is sparked by Soviet aggression into Poland.

I don't want to be overly cynical here. And I especially don't want to give the idea that the Allies were no better than the Axis. But you could just as easily say that the Allies became anti-fascist because they opposed Germany as you could that they opposed Germany because they were anti-fascist. Broader prejudices - against Jews, against the Roma, against gays - almost certainly exacerbated the damage done by Nazi atrocities and led to many of the victims being turned away from help that would have saved their lives. And that's to say nothing of the willing collaborators the Nazis found nearly everywhere they went.

The main lesson to take away from WW2 was that it could happen here. Hitler was not an extraordinary man. He did not wield Odin's spear, Gungnir. He was just a shitty politician who spoke to the garden-variety prejudices of salt-of-the-earth folks and proved that there were monsters inside them all along.

Truthfully, though, the only reason I even bring it up is because here in the year 2019, in the countries formerly known as the Allies, the lesson seems to be wearing off.

The Scion Companion is mostly silent on these issues. American racism is brought up, because there's no way around it when you have John Henry and Bre'er Rabbit in the Yankee pantheon. It mostly comes in the description of Sgt Jonathon Steele. He's got a very cool background, fighting the KKK, but the spirit of John Henry comes to him to convince him to join the Marines "by arguing their fight would never end if people couldn't see that America's so-called second class citizens were ready to make a first class contribution." Which somehow manages to be both inspirational and shitty.

But that brings us right to the heart of the ethical issue. To what degree is it appropriate to gloss over the shortcomings of the Allies in order to make a clear and vigorous anti-Nazi statement?

Because you can present World War Two as a straightforward heroic narrative, with the Axis little better than orcs. Germany  and Japan brought that upon themselves. Like they said at Nuremberg: "To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."

I don't think it's wrong to present WW2 in this way. In fact, if it helps cement the idea that Nazis = Villans into the public consciousness, it's actually a positive good. It's just that, in America at least, it's pretty self-regarding. There's just something the tinsiest bit suspect about calling yourself a hero, especially if that heroism is tied to an institution, such as the US military, that you might be tempted to use in a dangerously thoughtless manner.

The other danger is the one this particular supplement fell afoul of - if you make WW2 a black and white conflict, then whoever you put on the side of the Nazis is utterly irredeemable. Working alongside the SS immediately flings you from "antagonist," right past "villain" and straight into "demonic." Yet, bizarrely, Scion decided that was a good role for the Norse Gods.

The Greek gods get off a little easier, because Mussolini wasn't entirely out of line with the autocrats and despots traditionally associated with the pantheon. He was bad, but categorically worse than Sparta? Worse than the Roman Empire? That's for a better historian to say. Still, if you're playing a Scion of Ares, you have to have at least made your peace with the fact that papa supported bloody-handed tyrants. (Although, I have to point out that this chapter's conceit of Rome = Fascist Italy = Dodekatheon is a little thin, considering that Greece was invaded and occupied by the Nazis during the war).

The Norse gods are a bit trickier, because they were the gods of the vikings and the vikings were awful. So the question of "would the vikings and the old Germanic pagans have had any problem with what the Nazis were doing?" is a tough one to answer. Conquering people and taking their shit, and even committing brutal, unforgivable war crimes in the process? They'd probably be okay with that. Industrialized death camps? I don't feel comfortable giving an answer either way.

The basic setup tracks historically, though. Nazi occultism invoked the Germanic deities, which were largely aliases for the Norse deities, and so, in Scion's backstory, Nazi occultism worked instead of being the deluded preening of a drug-addled officer class. The Nazis were right. They really did have the support of Donner and Wotan and Fricka.

Yet despite Nazi occultism largely being confined to the upper ranks, the Norse Gods were apparently a spiritual version of the "clean wehrmacht." Gosh darnit, they were just running a decent, honorable invasion of the other Overworld Realms while their mortal counterparts were doing whatever it is they were doing down on Earth. They didn't notice anything hinky going on in Poland, nosiree. Heimdall's sight couldn't make out the smokestacks, and Odin's insight never noticed anybody missing, and Loki's cunning never penetrated the lies of the official story. It was all completely above board and the Aesir were horrified when they found out the truth.

Let's take a break and talk about the Japanese gods for a second. I haven't forgotten them. I have just had so much else to say that I've not yet fit them in. Hoo boy, does this chapter let the Japanese off light. It does describe the Japanese war effort as "unpleasant," but that is seriously as harsh as it ever gets. No mention at all of the numerous atrocities committed in the name of Japanese imperialism. In fact, it kind of comes off as imperial-apologist, framing the war as "spreading prosperity" and using euphemisms like "purity of culture." It's gross, and I don't like it.

But the treatment of the Holocaust is the worst. It is inconceivable that the Aesir did not know about it, and yet the text asks us to think of the entire Norse pantheon as a bunch of hapless Colonel Klinks. Why, Hel herself, she of the endless freezing underworld where the inglorious dead are tormented with poison and hunger, when she finds out one of her children was a warden at a concentration camp, she physically rips him apart. No SS in Valhalla, that's for sure.

And I guess this performance of contrition is supposed to be exculpatory. The Aesir worked with Hitler. They gave him spiritual blessings, possession of mighty magical weapons, including Odin's own spear, and fought a shadow war in heaven on his behalf. But they only found out about the Holocaust after the war, and they were very unhappy about it, so it's okay that they are a player-character faction in the modern day.

Grr. The reason we can get along with modern-day Germany, and consider them a free and open society is because there were trials. All the Nazi leaders were removed from power and sentenced to death. As much as they could, the victors of WW2 went out of their way to root out anyone who had anything to do with Germany's atrocities. Time took care of the rest. We can regard Germany as different, because the people are different. It has been purified by the rite of generational succession (well, that and reparations).

Except that there is a whole class of high-ranking Nazi officers that completely escaped punishment and are still alive today. And, in fact, will be for decades or centuries to come. Yikes.

Maybe that's something that you could build a plot around. A scion of Odin sacrifices and eye for wisdom, just like his father, and in the process learns of the Aesir's role in Nazi Germany's rise to power, and then decides to trigger the twilight of the gods as their justly-deserved punishment for crimes long concealed.

But the worst part of Scion's treatment of the Holocaust is how coy it is about its unbelievable horror. That's not really something I want in my rpgs. It's not even something I need in my rpgs. And if Scion were a gritty simulation of small unit combat, or a subtle game of intrigue and espionage, or even a pulp adventure with only borderline-superhuman masked heroes, then we probably wouldn't be having this conversation.

But Scion is a game where people's religious beliefs have a real, tangible effect on the material world. You could literally bump into Dionysus in a trendy LA hotspot, hook up with him, and then nine months later find yourself caring for an honest-to-goodness baby godling.

Part of the reason the Yankee and Allied pantheons stand out as being so weird is that America, Britain, and France already have a religion, one that is conspicuous in its absence (aside from some mentions of the "shield of Joan of Arc," and who knows where that came from). And, like all times that Europe is talked about without mentioning Christianity, it comes across as shallow at best and incoherent at worst. But I feel like, even more than regular Scion, Christianity is MIA because it would raise an awkward question:

If the gods actively intervene in the material world, where the fuck is the God of Israel?

And if you are not prepared to answer that question, then what the fuck are you doing writing a game about the gods intervening in WW2?

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